Crucifixion Comedy

When Monty Python’s Life of Brian arrived on Netflix in April 2018, a controversial piece of cinema history returned to public prominence. A film which treated religious themes with an indecorous irreverence that some Christians found unpalatable was introduced to the on-demand generation.

When it was first released in 1970, Life of Brian elicited furious responses from groups such as Christian moralist organisation The Festival of Light, whilst the Catholic Film Monitoring Office went as far as declaring it a sin to watch the film. It was deemed blasphemous and censored by several British local authorities, with some prohibitions only lifted as recently as 2015. [1] Life of Brian’s most notorious moment is perhaps its finale, which sees the traditional crucifixion scene transformed into an upbeat song and dance number led by Eric Idle from the cross, complete with corpses twitching in time to the music. Nothing better captures the film’s playful, satirical treatment of religious dogma than Idle cheerily reminding us to ‘always look on the bright side of life’ whilst strapped to the symbol of Christ’s agonising self-sacrificial death.

Although bringing such a provocative scene to the public’s attention again risks opening old wounds, it also represents an opportunity to reconsider the niche genre of ‘Crucifixion comedy’. The Pythons undoubtedly hover on the edge of profanity and insensitivity, but their work also raises the possibility of a more productive, positive relationship between humour and faith. Before its release, the writers of Life of Brian secured the approval of the canon of Saint George’s Chapel, Windsor, who also contributed to its development. [2] And, looking back on Python’s debates with the Church, John Cleese expresses regret that there was ‘no attempt to find any common ground’ between the two parties. [3] This suggests Life of Brian’s creators were not aiming to blaspheme but to test out where reverence ends and irreverence begins, and ask whether the two could ever overlap.

Monty Python were not the first artists of their time to use Christ’s Passion as a medium for exploring possible ‘common ground’ between humour and faith. As Western society moved into the era of postmodernism, and an increasingly pluralistic and secular cultural environment, artists such as Italian director Pier Pablo Pasolini and English poet and playwright Tony Harrison experimented with comical, modernised portrayals of the Crucifixion. A decade before Life of Brian, Pasolini’s La Ricotta (1963) gave the Passion a tragicomic, Marxist dynamic. Using a film-within-a-film device, La Ricotta shows actors recreating Rosso Fiorentino’s Descent from the Cross (1521) as a tableau vivant. However, to the director’s horror, the crew play catchy dance music by mistake, while the actors smirk, drift off, or forget their lines, creating a farcical atmosphere which destroys the intended gravity of the scene. Harrison’s adaption of the traditional Wakefield Mystery Plays, first performed in 1977, two years before Life of Brian was released, also finds humour in the Crucifixion. The erection of Christ’s cross becomes a pantomime comedy routine involving four ‘Knights’ tasked with lifting the weighty crucifix: ‘This cross’ll come out all cock-eyed, / This lad here’s like to let it slip’. [4]

As with Life of Brian, neither of these tragicomic Passion pieces was uncontroversial. In March 1963, Pasolini was put on trial for producing La Ricotta, and he saw his film censored as ‘an attack on the constitutional guarantee of the state religion’ due to its ‘irreverent derision of the cross’. [5] Harrison’s decision to weave slapstick comedy, swearing, politics, and even a forklift truck into the traditional Christian story was also condemned as ‘intrusive and even blasphemous’ in some circles. [6]

Yet it also seems clear that both Pasolini and Harrison achieved something far more profound than derisive blasphemy. Harrison’s Mysteries have been praised for allowing secular audiences to become ‘caught up in the biblical narratives’, and for capturing an ‘element of the miraculous’. [7] La Ricotta, meanwhile, opens with a biblical quote and features an autobiographical director-figure endorsing a ‘profound, archaic Catholicism’. [8] A year after La Ricotta was first shown, Pasolini was awarded the International Catholic Film Office award for the best religious film for his cinematic rendering of the Gospel of Matthew. In both instances, it appears too simplistic to claim that these artists were only trying to denigrate and deride Christian belief. Instead, it seems their use of irreverence and humour was partly intended to help create a modern, provocative presentation of the biblical narrative, which brought these stories into contact with contemporary concerns.

With this is mind, it is worth reflecting on whether these controversial collations of crucifix and comedy might have something positive to contribute to theology. If the use of humour in this context constitutes something other than blasphemous derision, might it instead convey attitudes and ideas that could complement and enrich religious belief?

In each of the Crucifixion scenes in question, there is something unashamedly, gleefully human about the humour. In Harrison’s Mysteries, the banter exchanged by the soldiers lifting the cross – ‘More lifting, and less lip’ – introduces a reassuringly everyday element into a bleak, unsettling scenario. Harrison uses vigorous verse and earthy, colloquial diction to preserve the cycles’ ‘Northern character’ in his adaption. He also stayed true to their origins as ‘promenade productions’, allowing his audience to stand in the midst of the action, immersing them in the story, and encouraging them to join in the laughter. [9] Like the comedy Pasolini extracts from the unprofessional, unruly actors in La Ricotta’s crucifixion tableau, these chuckles sneak a funny, familiar fallibility into a grave, shocking moment. Whilst classical portrayals of the crucifixion can seem ethereal and otherworldly in their dramatic, tragic beauty, the included knockabout capers of Pasolini and Harrison ground the proceedings in the mundane laughable world of human frailty and foolishness. Yet rather than detracting from the theological potency of the scene, might this in fact enhance it, by affirming and enriching its human aspect? If the crucifix symbolises Christ assuming all of humanity, then this ought to include human banter and farcical ineptitude. As theologian Conrad Hyers puts it, ‘what does the full humanity of Jesus mean if it does not include the freedom of laughter?’ [10]

As well as embracing the ‘freedom of laughter’, the comic edge to these alternative crucifixions also helps to do justice to the absurdity and incongruity of the subject matter. Sociologist Peter Berger describes humour as leading to a heightened ‘perception of incongruence’, [11] and this would surely be of use to an audience faced with the bizarre paradox of the Son of God dying the death of a convicted criminal. A verse in the song performed at the climax of the crucifixion in Harrison’s Mysteries illustrates this perfectly:

‘A man is like a bramble briar
Covers himself in thorns
He laughs like a clown when his fortunes are down
And his clothes are ragged and worn.’

Christ in a crown of thorns is described as an everyman who ‘laughs like a clown in the face of misfortune’, as man, clown, and Messiah are brought together in a single, ludicrous, figure. Laughing at this can be – in the words of theologian Gavin Hopps – ‘faithful assent to the paradoxes of a religiously conceived world’: an appropriate response to the miraculous, incongruous comingling of human and divine. [12]

Harrison is an artist who revels in the poeticism of incongruity and enjoys ‘using the so-called “low” art to unlock the so-called “high”’. [13] He relishes bringing together influences from the classical canon with ideas from the comedians and pantomime dames he watched in his youth, just as Pasolini was happy to impose ‘low’ humour born of human bungling onto a sixteenth-century religious masterpiece. Both artists brazenly blur comic commonality and momentous tragedy, yet their willingness to embrace the juxtaposition of low and high in tension produces Crucifixion scenes in which the absurdity of the cross is immediate and tangible. They demonstrate how, perversely, comedy can become ‘truly cosmic’ by being ‘frankly human’, [14] thus providing a fitting tribute to an incarnation which united the human and cosmic in a single redeemer.

Finding humour in the Passion narrative might also capture something of what Paul referred to as the ‘foolishness’ of the cross: the defiant, irrational hope which is a central part of the Christian response to the Crucifixion. Portraying Christ as a man who ‘laughs like a clown when his fortunes are down’ could remind the religiously inclined that in Christ’s death ‘God chose what is foolish to shame the wise’ (1 Corinthians 1:27). Comedy can be an extremely effective way of preserving a ‘foolish’ hope for something better in the face of extreme adversity. The lively dance music accidentally imposed on the La Ricotta crucifixion tableau could be interpreted as a chuckle-inducing glimpse of the possibility of future life in a more joyful, utopian key, analogous to a Christian’s faith in fleeting, proleptic foretastes of Heaven.

From his vantage point on the cross, Eric Idle’s character in Life of Brian assures his audience that ‘Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke’. There is something in this levity which provides what Hopps calls a ‘transcendent perspective’ on life: an ‘eschatological detachment’ which could be seen as ‘an appropriate way of comporting oneself toward the divine’. [15] In other words, Idle’s character’s claim that life is a ‘laugh’ and death a ‘joke’ is not too far from the Christian conviction that Christ’s death and resurrection have robbed death of its sting and vindicated a ‘foolish’ faith in higher things. In the Gospel of John, Christ’s final words from the cross are tetelestai– ‘it is finished’ (John 19:30). Perhaps an irreverent injunction to ‘always look on the bright side of life’ also has something of the absurd confidence and baffling acceptance this climactic pronouncement projects.

Clearly, none of this should be taken too far. Anything which threatened to denigrate the horror of Calvary, or unsympathetically derided Christian belief in its significance, should be treated with caution. Used unadvisedly or crudely, humour could be an inappropriate, insensitive response to a subject so important to many. Yet taking a closer look at the ways in which Christology and comedy might find ‘common ground’ casts these artists’ decisions to find humour in the Passion narrative in a different light. The Python’s conviction that areas of overlap and agreement could be found with the Church seems more realistic when the works of Harrison and Pasolini appear to cultivate this sort of connection successfully.

A recent survey found that ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ has become the most popular tune to play at a funeral in the United Kingdom, with the hymns ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ and ‘Abide with me’ completing the top three. [16] In the hearts and minds of those facing death, chirpy irreverence seems to have a natural place alongside professions of faith in a Divine Lord.


Notes

[1] ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian in first Bournemouth showing’, BBC Online, 15 October, 2015, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-34529846.

[2] Sanjeev Bhaskar, ‘Why Monty Python’s “foul, disgusting and blasphemous” Life of Brian wouldn’t get made today’, The Telegraph Online, 16 April, 2018, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/0/monty-pythons-foul-disgusting-blasphemous-life-brian-wouldnt/.

[3] ‘Cleese and Palin relive the 1979 Life of Brian debate’, BBC Online, 30 December, 2013, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/entertainment-arts-25464820/cleese-and-palin-relive-the-1979-life-of-brian-debate.

[4] Tony Harrison, The Mysteries (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), 144.

[5] Tim Cawkwell, ‘The Catholic Church in Il bidone’, in Italy on Screen, ed. Lucy Bolton (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2007), 90.

[6] Romana Huk, ‘Postmodern Classics: The Verse Drama of Tony Harrison’, in British and Irish Drama since 1960, ed. James Acheson (London: MacMillan, 1993), 208.

[7] Michael Billington, ‘The Mysteries,’ Guardian Online, 21 December, 1999, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/1999/dec/21/theatre.artsfeatures.

[8] Pier Pablo Pasolini, La Ricotta (1963).

[9] Harrison, Mysteries, 144.

[10] Conrad Hyers, The Comic Vision (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1981), 16.

[11] Peter Berger, Redeeming Laughter (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014), 208.

[12] Gavin Hopps, ‘Comedy, Levity and Laughter’, in The Routledge Companion to Religion and Literature, ed. Mark Knight (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017), 244-5.

[13] Tony Harrison, The Inky Digit of Defiance (London: Faber and Faber, 2017), 493.

[14] Hyers, Comic Vision, 129-32.

[15] Hopps, ‘Comedy’244-5.

[16] ‘Monty Python tune tops funeral songs’, BBC News, 21 November, 2014, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-30143250.

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